Coming to the M.V. Film Center on Tuesday, April 11, for one night is “Little Richard: I Am Everything.” Known as the architect of rock and roll, he spent seven decades as a legendary figure in popular music. In the 1950s, he became celebrated for his showmanship, in particular his piano playing, which led to the development of rock and roll.
In addition, he was influential in performing soul and hip-hop. Other singers and musicians followed his lead in rock and hip-hop, as well as rhythm and blues, for generations to come. His song “Tutti Frutti” was an instant hit in the mid-1950s. His next big hit was “Long Tall Sally,” which in 1956 became No. 1 on Billboard’s Rhythm and Blues Best Sellers. He went on to perform another 15 winners in less than three years. In this period, he integrated white and Black Americans.
After five years, he abandoned rock and roll and, becoming a born-again Christian, he toured Europe, advising the Beatles, in particular Paul McCartney. He was named one of the first crossover artists, breaking the color line. Among the singers who performed his songs were Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, Bill Haley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and the Everly Brothers.
Little Richard was honored by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986, as well as the Songwriters Hall of Fame. He earned Lifetime Achievement Awards from the Recording Academy and the Rhythm and Blues Foundation, and helped bring an end to the racism that characterized the music charts in the mid-1950s.
His family nicknamed him “Lil’ Richard” because of his small and skinny body. In addition, he had one leg shorter than the other, which left him with an unusual gait, described by some as effeminate. In fact, he was a homosexual.
He was initially influenced by gospel music because of his family’s religious demeanor, leading them — and him — to join the A.M.E., Baptist, and Pentecostal churches. His signature singing style of screaming and hollering once led him to be expelled from a church, and led him to be called the “War Hawk.”
As a 14-year-old teenager, he so impressed performer Sister Rosetta Tharpe that she invited him to open her show. Thanks to her, he decided to become a professional musician. “Caldonia” was his first rhythm and blues song, despite his family’s calling it and other rhythm and blues songs “devil music.” At this point he adopted his signature pompadour hairdo and pencil-thin mustache after another gay musician, Billy Wright, who played in Atlanta clubs. Wright put him in contact with the DJ who led him to sign with RCA Records.
By 1977, Richard gave up his alcohol and cocaine addictions and quit rock and roll, returning to gospel music. For the first time, Richard joined rock and roll and evangelism, in a move that led to a children’s album in 1994, and performed in the PBS Kids and TLC animated TV series, “The Magic School Bus.” During the 1990s, Richard performed around the world as well as in TV, film, and tracks with such artists Jon Bon Jovi and Elton John.
In 2010, sciatica led to his hip replacement, and as a result he had to reduce the number of his performances. His last performance came in 2014 in Murfreesboro, Tenn. He appeared in a wheelchair in 2017 for an interview with the Three Angels Broadcasting Network, in which he discussed his longtime Christian faith.
In 2020, he experienced two months of illness, including bone cancer, that led to his death in his home in Tullahoma, Tenn., at 87 years old. Several singers paid tribute to him, including Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, and Elton John. Little Richard was a legendary singer and musician.
Information and tickets for “Little Richard: I Am Everything” are available at mvfilmsociety.com.